Deflecting Questions

For those unaware of what I mean by “deflecting questions”, I mean the teaching technique of not immediately answering a question that is asked in your classroom.  Traditionally, in a teacher-centered, expert/novice teaching setting, the teacher is considered the knower-of-things and the students are the sponges, there to soak up the knowledge of the knower.  It follows, in traditional teaching, that if a question is to be answered at all, it would of course be done by the knower.

With the shift from teacher-centered classrooms to student or subject-centered classrooms, the idea of the teacher being the only “expert” is also in question.  For most questions asked in a classroom, it is more than likely that a student is also a knowerof-things.  Or at least, as a collective, the class may be able to come to some realization of the answer.

My experience in this classroom has strongly suggested that I work in a teacher-centered, expert/novice, knower-of-things/sponge class setting.  Which can feel like being in a time-machine. However, simply forcing a subject-centered approach on the class is not always greeted warmly by the students.  They have been conditioned to learn in a certain way, and it involves having an expert lead the class–  It is comforting to think someone in the classroom knows what they are doing– And at times, a redirected question back to them will be met with silence.

As a skill, however, deflection has a few great benefits, particularly in a language class.

1)     First, if students are actively asking you questions in class; congratulations! That sort of classroom participation is not always achieved everywhere.  And congratulations to your students, who are probably very bright.

2)     Now that you’ve been asked, and deflected a question in the target language¸ the class now has more opportunity to use the target language in an authentic situation!

3)     Since the question came from a peer, often the class is much more interested in hearing an answer to the question.  At the very least, they are very interested in how you, the teacher, will handle the question as a template for future question/answers.

4)     Because the question came from a peer, students will be motivated to participate, either out of perceived cooperation or competition.

5)     By deflecting, you show the students that you value their thoughts, even if their thinking is flawed, illogical or irrational.  As a teacher, you can guide the students through their own confusion, without necessarily having to point the fact of it out to them.

—  Now, certainly deflecting questions in an ESL setting where you as the teacher do not speak the students’ language is a difficult task.  Often times even if I did answer a question, it still isn’t understood by the students.  Which is really only more reason to deflect the question back to the students, who, if they have a good answer, are better suited (knowing both Korean and some English) to help the question-asker to learn.

To finish, I’ll show an example of this that commonly happens in my classroom.

My students love spelling.  They love it and fear it.  It is a cause of much anguish to have to write for some of them.  So a common question that I get asked is “how do you spell ________?”  This question is not one of those great mind-bending, paradigm-shifting moments.  But it is an easy opportunity to deflect and get the class to participate in constructing and navigating English.  Especially since spelling is, apparently to some, so “random”.

So instead of answering, I might ask, “Hmm.. well, what do you think?”  and then ask, “any other ideas?” even if they get it right. Then maybe ask the class,
“Student X has a question, how do you spell _________?”
“ok, any other ideas?”
“Why spell it ______ instead of _____?”
— It is here that I could answer it, being the authority in the classroom.  But it is also an opportunity to teach the students how to discover resources, like a dictionary. So, instead, I might say,
“Let’s look it up!  Looks like it is spelled __________.”

You can even make a game of this, asking for bets on which spelling they think is correct.  Any single question, even a simple spelling question can go as deep or as shallow as you have time for.  There certainly are times when I will simply give the student the correct spelling, but if I can, I try to give them much more.

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